Stratford 20 Stoke 21
Midlands One West
STRATFORD’S promotion hopes were dented on Saturday as they lost in agonising fashion at home to mid-table Stoke.
The Staffordshire side’s form has improved dramatically since Christmas so Stratford were taking nothing for granted as they tried to defend this season’s 100 per cent home record.
The match proved every bit as tough as they expected and Stoke secured victory in the dying moments of the game with a try which damaged Stratford’s ambitions on a day when promotion rivals Bournville and Worcester Wanderers both won.
However, it is Bridgnorth – who did not play – who sit at the top of the pile, four points above second placed Stratford with two games in hand.
The home side lacked spark at the beginning and mistakes let Stoke dominate the first half hour, although the first score was a little bit fortunate for the visitors.
A powerful kick by centre Jack Young from his own twenty-two went too far when it failed to bounce into touch until it had crossed the goalline. This resulted in a Stoke scrum all the way back on the Stratford twenty-two.
The big new No 8 that Stoke had recently bought in earned his keep, as he did throughout the match, when he powered off the back of the scrum and nearly made it to the line.
Stratford’s rushed defence did well but a few phases later Stoke created the extra man for a try on the right which was duly converted.
Stratford came very close to scoring 20 minutes in when a clearing kick was touched by a Stoke defender before going into touch to give Stratford a good attacking platform.
The subsequent driving maul was stopped illegally by Stoke so Stratford had another lineout, this time just five metres out. The forwards drove over the line but the ball was deemed held up by the referee – possibly influenced by the lack of celebration from Stratford – and the opportunity was lost.
Despite patchy attacking play by Stratford, they defended well and Stoke were unable to add to their lead. After half an hour Stratford managed to level the score.
A Stoke attack broke down on halfway when a loose pass went astray. Quick thinking by winger Callum Cook saw the ball booted down the right-hand five-metre channel and the chase was on.
Stoke managed to secure the ball, but only by diving over it and giving away a penalty. Stratford went straight for the corner and a five-metre lineout.
Second row Tom Mylott secured the ball and the pack drove forward, neatly switching the point of attack, but just fell short. The ball was handed over to the backs who spread it quickly across the width of the pitch.
Poetic justice was served when Callum Cook, who started the whole attack, scored in the left-hand corner. Fellow winger Nathan Geekie stepped up for the tricky conversion and, in his usual economical style, kicked the extra two points with inches to spare and the score was 7-7.
It was close to the end of the half when Stratford took the lead with a Geekie penalty, but there was still time for more action.
Another testing kick into the corner had the Stoke defence struggling and again they gave away a penalty. It was once too often in the red zone for the referee and the Stoke player was sent to the sin-bin for ten minutes.
Stratford once again went to the forwards and the lineout. This time there was no mistake as the pack drove over the line and loose-head Simon ‘Ratty’ Baldwyn scored Stratford’s second try. The conversion by Geekie was just wide and the half finished with Stratford leading 15-7 and Stoke down to 14 players.
In the second half Stratford were unable to take advantage of the extra man and soon after Stoke were back up to a full complement the referee sent Stratford scrum-half Drew Pritchard to the bin.
Stoke kicked the penalty and another one ten minutes later to reduce their deficit to 15-13 and the visitors regained the lead after 65 minutes with a decidedly ugly drop goal.
Stratford heads did not drop and they continued to fight. Once again Stoke’s lack of discipline gave Stratford a penalty which they put into the corner. The lineout was working well for Stratford and the pack drove the ball towards the Stoke try line.
This time Drew Pritchard spotted an opening and took the ball from the back of the maul and scampered over the line. The conversion was just wide but Stratford were leading again, 20-16.
Close to full time Stoke attempted an ambitious cross-field kick to the right-hand corner. The two Stratford defenders appeared to have it covered but somehow the Stoke player managed to recover the ball and scored to seal a dramatic victory.
It was a disappointing result as it could have gone either way but Stratford were really not in their best form. Stoke’s new recruits were the factor that told in the end and Stratford can take solace in the fact they are a 100 per cent amateur side who remain in second place.
A key game looms on Saturday (2.15pm) when Stratford host fourth placed Worcester Wanderers. Stratford lost 27-17 in the reverse fixture and will be looking to make amends.
Home support makes a big difference and, as there are no Six Nations matches, it would be good to see, and hear, a big crowd.